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Culture

How Environmentalists Saved ‘Dune’

An interview with Ryan Britt, the author of The Spice Must Flow, about Dune’s once-covert climate change message.

A sand dune and a book.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

For someone who’s been hit by the Dune curse, author Ryan Britt was in good spirits when I spoke to him about his new book, The Spice Must Flow: The Story of Dune, from Cult Novels to Visionary Sci-Fi Movies, on Friday. “It has to be something, always,” he told me brightly, in reference to the second installment of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation — to which last week’s release of The Spice Must Flow had been loosely tied — getting delayed to next year due to the Hollywood strikes. Still, Britt winces at himself when he remembers he’s called Dune:Part Two a “2023 film” in print.

I imagine, though, that Britt’s readers will forgive him. The Spice Must Flow is a wonderfully enjoyable companion guide to Dune, including for people who aren’t really that deep into Arrakis lore (or haven’t, like me, read beyond Frank Herbert’s first book). Touching on everything from the nonfiction magazine article that was the earliest version of Dune, to the turbulent attempts to adapt the novel into a film, Britt also gives welcome space to how Herbert’s sandworm-populated, drugged-up sci-fi saga serves as “an ecological guide to the future.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

Where were you when you learned Dune: Part Two was being pushed back?

I was getting ready to make my six-year-old daughter dinner with my wife. I shouldn’t say that I was making dinner — I think my wife was getting ready to make dinner and I was helping and hanging out with my daughter. And I got a text from my literary agent just saying, “Had you seen this?”

But you know, I had seen the rumors that it was potentially going to happen. And just from an entertainment industry/publishing standpoint, it’s the most Dune thing that could possibly happen. I was joking with many people that writing a book about Dune is like — I'm entering into a world that was very hard for David Lynch and very hard for Frank Herbert and [Alejandro] Jodorowsky and Denis Villeneuve. Something always happens to people who are doing Dune projects. It was like, “Okay, so I don’t get to have a book out at the same time as the movie? I’m getting off easy compared to Lynch, who lost like four years of his life or whatever.”

You write that “the public perception of Dune as an ecological science fiction novel is perhaps the most important factor in its immortality.” But as you note in your book, Herbert didn’t exactly set out to write an ecological science fiction book. How did Dune gain the reputation of environmental literature that it has today?

I want to be careful about this because I think that it’s possible that Frank Herbert did have that intention. He dedicated the first novel to “dry land ecologists.” He began writing a nonfiction article about real sand dunes, and that led to writing Dune. I just don’t think that environmentalism was his sole intention or his sole motivating factor in completing the first book. By evidence in my research and the research of others, he played up that [intention] after it was claimed by environmentalists.

The big thing that happened is Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 picked Dune as an ecological text, and then Frank Herbert spoke at Earth Day in 1970. I actually brought with me as a prop the New World or No World (1970) book, which was based on a TV special Herbert did. [Reading from the book’s cover:] “‘Our ecology crisis and what to do about it,’ edited by Frank Herbert.” So this is where, by the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, Herbert really starts saying Dune was an ecological book.

And that’s definitely in the text. But at the same time, the planet ecologist who is the father of Liet-Kynes, Pardot Kynes — all of that is from the appendices that are in the novel but weren’t in the original serialized magazine versions. A lot of the big ecological ruminations are sort of covert in the first run. But even in New World or No World, where Herbert talks about putting the words of ecological concern into the mouths of his characters — that’s from the appendices. So I think that he was always throwing down a message about climate change and a message about how corrupt governments contribute to that, but he wasn’t talking that up in ‘63 and ‘65, when the first versions of the book came out. But by 1968, ‘69, ‘70, he certainly was, because the Whole Earth Catalog thing happened and I think environmentalists were clearly his people in a way that, perhaps, other science fiction writers were not.

Do you think that part of the reason Dune had mainstream success was because this environmental interpretation made it seem like more “serious” literature to readers who might not have picked up a sci-fi book otherwise?

Yes, absolutely. The reason why Dune is mainstream is because of the ecological messaging. And that’s not just true of the first novel, which is by far and away the most popular, but the thing also about Herbert is that he makes good on the idea that Dune is an ecological series in the sequels.

By the time we get to Children of Dune(1976), he has a very interesting message about climate change, which is that the sandworms are an endangered species but they’re also essential to the economy because they create the spice — the spice is an allegory for all natural resources that power transportation. So some of the best ecological messaging comes out of the sequels. Children of Dune was the first hardcover bestseller science fiction novel — in terms of being marketed as a science fiction novel — of all time. And in that book is when Herbert says, look, not only does climate change and ignoring climate change have a negative effect on our environment, but it has a negative effect on the economy as well.

Children of Dune is when Arrakis has been terraformed, like forced climate change. But it’s the reverse from us because instead of turning it into a worse environment, they’re actually making it more livable. But that is the thing that’s actually against the existing environment, and the thing that’s going to threaten to kill the sandworms and disrupt everything. So Herbert inverts the literalness by saying, Okay, this kind of forced climate change seemed like a great idea, one that the Fremen wanted, to transform it into a paradise. But now here we are, two books later, and not that much time has passed, and we’re looking at the extinction of the sandworms and the collapse of everything.

The environmental movement in the U.S. has changed a lot since Frank Herbert died in 1986. Were he still alive today, do you think he’d still be writing books with environmental themes? Or was it a passing fancy when it came to Dune?

No, no, he certainly would be. Absolutely. You could look at books like The Green Brain, and some of his other books, and definitely it’s there.

It’s interesting because you look at someone like Elon Musk — we all know there’s a political problem with Musk more broadly, and he’s almost like a character from Dune. Because he’s like, “I’m going to create all these electric vehicles,” but at what cost, right? Herbert was interested in political figures — Musk wouldn’t think of himself as a political figure, but he is — and the people with power who people don’t question. If we all agree that electric cars are good, then that would be Musk, right? But Musk is like Leto II, the God Emperor of Dune, and Leto II has ulterior motives in the end but so many people have to die to get there. So I think that if you could have Frank Herbert alive to see what’s going on with Elon Musk, he’d be like, “This is exactly what I was talking about.”

Is there anything else you’d like Heatmap readers to know about Dune?

What is really cool about Dune when it comes to its ecological messaging is that, like all good art, it is not an after-school special. That allows it to sink in more effectively. The irony that I point out in my book is that New World or No World is essentially an after-school special — it was literally on TV as a segment of people talking about the whole problem of climate change. [Reading from the book:] “I refuse to be put in a position of telling my grandchildren: ‘Sorry, there’s no world for you. We’ve used it all up.’ —Frank Herbert.” He is an environmentalist. But this book is not in print, and Dune is.

So why is Dune in print when we have to find that messaging? Because we have to find it: It’s not flashing on a giant sign like in Avatar or something like that. It’s not turning to the camera.

You look at something like Dune and you’ve got 60 years of people talking about it and thinking about it. And the “thinking about it” part is essential because people won’t change their minds with, like, a TV special. They will change their minds with a novel. A novel, a story, can move people.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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